In looking back at Everton’s disappointing 2021/22 season the headlines are probably made off the pitch more than on it.
David Unsworth, after nine years of coaching association with the Under 23s, left his post as Academy Director & Head coach in April, less than two months after the appointment of new Director of Football, Kevin Thelwell. The subsequent announcement that there were to be two roles advertised, effectively splitting Unsworth’s old duties probably suggests that the singular role, or the fulfillment of that role, was not particularly conducive to bringing through local talent to the First Team set up. Thelwell’s own experience as Academy head and Under-18s coach at Wolves likely made up his mind.
John Ebbrell took temporary charge of the squad for the last few games but it does appear that a permanent appointment from outside the club is more likely.
Results aside, bringing through talent to Frank Lampard’s side, as we have discussed many times, has to be the goal. The title winning teams at this level of 2017 and 2019 did not produce a raft of players for the first team at Everton or anywhere else in the Premier League.
For Lampard’s part, he has not as yet put much faith in the young talent that has been on the fringes of the first team. That is probably more down to being preoccupied with having his senior players accept responsibility in the battle to avoid relegation from the Premiership. Not the ideal time to introduce young players.
Some worrying Under-23 similarities with the first team:
- Everton U23s finished 4th from bottom, avoiding relegation by just 2 points
- U23s only won one away fixture all season
- U23s were the lowest goalscorers in the division and had the second worst goal difference at minus 21
At player level, it was encouraging to see the development of quite a few players to first team training level, namely Lewis Dobbin, Reece Welch, Isaac Price, Kyle John, Tyler Onyango, Stanley Mills, Sean McAllister, Ryan Astley and goalkeeper Harry Tyrer.
In different, less trying, circumstances maybe one or two of those players would have featured at first team level but for this past season, in keeping with recent history, the transition from youth to senior level has to be recorded as “disappointing”.
To put the playing experience of the squad into a bit more context, it was a very young group of players with many experiencing football at U23 level for the first time. At the start of the season, of the 19 players that played the vast majority of the games, 12 of those players were 18 or younger with only 3 players, Ellis Simms (on loan at Hearts for half the season), Kyle John and Joe Anderson being 20 years of age.
The current contract situation of players is that, at the time of writing, the U23 regulars Joe Anderson, Seb Quirk, Rhys Hughes, Rafael Garcia and Sean McAllister will depart the club this summer with not a single competitive game at the first team level between them.
This, naturally, means that there will be more opportunity for some of the Under 18s making the step upwards next season and of course, the gruelling season for those making their U23 debuts in 2021/ 22 will stand them in good stead to make progress with that experience under their belt.
For their development next season, one would hope that the likes of Onyango, John, Astley and joint top goalscorer Tom Cannon can try to prove themselves in the lower leagues.
Having watched all the 90 minutes coverage that I could during the season, I would predict a few players to make real progress next season. By progress, I mean getting into the eyeline of Frank Lampard. Dobbin, Welch, Price and Mills have already made an impression with the Blues senior manager. I would really hope that they will continue with the first team set-up and we could maybe add to that list by including the following:
- Charlie Whitaker, a forward/ attacking midfielder, who can be brilliant but needs to add consistency to his game
- Luke Butterfield, often in the shadow of Isaac Price but a strong tackling centre midfielder
- You heard it here first, Roman Dixon, a lightning fast attacking right back
- Francis Okoronkwo, impressed hugely for the FA Youth Cup team, a 6’3 powerful forward, either a left winger or striker
Whatever happens and whoever is in charge, despite the disappointing season there is good reason to be optimistic about the future of our Under 23s. The players on the fringes of the first team squad will benefit from the season just gone and hopefully without the relegation battle pressure, Frank Lampard will give some of these young talents a chance in the upcoming USA games and in the Premiership (fingers crossed at this point) next season!